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Kiev Is Full of Hope — Yes, Even for Jews

On a recent Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Kiev, I noticed a few peculiarities — due certainly to the undeclared state of war between Russia and Ukraine for the past three months. The check-in agent at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport called security to report that an American named Fishman was flying to Kiev, and asked if security wanted to question me. (The answer was, thankfully, “No.”) By contrast, passport control at Kiev’s Boryspol airport greeted me with a broad smile and a “Welcome to Ukraine.” Other male passengers, who were carrying Russian passports, were given a very different reception: Passport control handed them over to Ukrainian soldiers, who escorted them to private rooms for questioning. A reminder that a war was going on.

This was not my first visit to either city. I direct a program for the Jewish Theological Seminary that is based at Russian State University for the Humanities, and our program has a coordinator in the Ukrainian capital. But this was my first trip since February, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, and March, when Russia annexed Crimea and began destabilizing eastern Ukraine. It felt like I was visiting two entirely new countries.

In Russia’s case, it is an old-new country (with apologies to Theodor Herzl), a trimmed-down, toned-down version of the USSR. The average citizen, who gathers his or her news exclusively from state-run television, is proud that Russia is strong again, that it can overwhelm adversaries and defy the West. And the professors

I talked to at RSUH, none of whom is your average Russian citizen, fell into two categories: There were those colleagues who toed the official line (“What happened in Kiev was an American-sponsored junta”; “Ukraine is not really a country, it’s part of Russia”). This was jolting, because the same professors had been virulently anti-Putin just a year or two ago. I concluded that while they probably didn’t believe what they were saying, they couldn’t afford the luxury of speaking otherwise, because it would harm their careers. Those who have decided to block out public affairs from their consciousness and to focus on their jobs and families were a second type of colleague. People in that group are also talking about emigrating or — if they are Jewish — making aliyah. It was all quite familiar from Soviet times, and quite depressing.

Kiev, on the other hand, is a city reborn. I hadn’t expected life to be so normal and vibrant: Cafes were full, students were finishing up the school year — and there was no sign of armed men on the streets. The fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk seemed to be far away. In Kiev, everything is charged with energy, hope and worry. People are optimistic that the government, economy and society will be reformed along Western lines in the aftermath of the revolution and the election of a new president. Their fear is that their country is at the mercy of Putin’s designs.

I went to Kiev to attend the forum “Ukraine: Thinking Together,” organized by Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic and by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. The event was a gathering of American, European and Ukrainian intellectuals — in part to analyze the state of affairs, and in part to express solidarity with the struggling Ukrainian nation.

As is often the case at such conclaves, a high proportion of the participants were Jewish: the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and the former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner; the American political analysts Paul Berman and Carl Gershman; the Russian dissident journalist Alexander Podrabinek; the Ukrainian artist Alexander Roitburd, and so on. But amid the audience of some 400 people, nearly all of them Ukrainian, I was one of two attendees who wore a yarmulke. (The other was the journalist Konstanty Gebert from Warsaw.) The reaction to my presence, as I mingled at the coffee breaks and receptions, was interesting: I got a lot of unsolicited smiles from total strangers. A few of them came over to greet me, and said, “I’m so glad you’re here.” They were visibly grateful that the Jewish people, as represented by yours truly, were in solidarity with Ukraine.

I said “Thank you,” and didn’t have the heart to tell them that most American Jews who wear yarmulkes (and many others who don’t) are not in solidarity with either Ukraine or Russia. They wish a plague on both the Ukrainian and Russian houses, and are very happy that most Ukrainian Jews left for Israel back in the 1990s and now live far away from this conflict (though they are in the midst of another one).

Putin has inadvertently done a great favor to the people of this country. He has united and consolidated Ukrainian society. People who had been skeptical or antagonistic toward the Maidan movement, and toward the toppling of Yanukovych, were nonetheless incensed by Putin’s subsequent aggression against Crimea and the East. They rallied behind the new regime in Kiev once it became clear that the survival of a sovereign and independent country was at stake. These former skeptics and opponents — and the majority of Ukrainian Jews were in that category — are now pro-Maidan. In the recent presidential elections they voted for Petro Poroshenko, in part because he was like them, a man who had switched sides. Poroshenko served as a minister in Yanukovych’s Cabinet until 2012, but later played a prominent role in the Maidan protests.

The Russian propaganda line that the revolution was the work of fascists and anti-Semites offends Ukrainians. While this was a useful rallying cry in Russia, in Ukraine it had an opposite effect. Ukrainians are determined to show the world, and to show themselves, that they are not as they are portrayed on Russian television. Voices calling for tolerance, pluralism, multiethnicity, and multilingualism now dominate public discourse. While some of this talk is instrumental — to curry favor with residents of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine so that they do not support separatism, and to garner support from Europe and the United States — more and more, people are internalizing their own words about pluralism and mutual respect. The largest placard in Maidan square reads, “We love Russians, we despise Putin.” On the ground beneath it, candles are arranged to spell “There is no fascism here.”

Before the election, Poroshenko made a campaign stop in Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The purpose of his trip wasn’t to court the “Jewish vote” back home (which is minuscule) or to seek Jewish campaign contributions (as a billionaire businessman, he didn’t need to worry about money). Poroshenko wanted to express his solidarity with Jews and the Jewish state, in full view of the Ukrainian electorate, and give the lie to the charges of fascism and anti-Semitism. Even if it cost him votes.

On Passover this year, Bishop Simeon of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Dnepropetrovsk visited the city’s Jewish community center, where he greeted chief rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky and wished Jews a happy Passover. While Bishop Simeon has served in this ecclesiastical position for five years, it was his very first visit to the JCC. Such a public display of friendship toward the Jewish community would not have taken place before the revolution. Need one mention that 100 years ago, Orthodox priests would have expressed very different “views” about Jews during the Passover and Easter season?

Jews are now considered the most loyal, patriotic ethnic minority in the country (second only to the Crimean Tatars). The Ukrainian opinion-making elite was impressed by the full-page advertisement that Jewish leaders published in The New York Times in the form of a letter to Vladimir Putin, telling him that they did not need or want his “protection.” Most Ukrainians know that a Jewish squadron fought in the revolution (led by Natan Khazin, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces), and that three Jews were among the “heavenly hundred” — the fighters, demonstrators and innocent bystanders whom Yanukovych’s snipers shot dead. For the first time in Ukrainian history, the country has national heroes and martyrs who are Jewish.

And everyone in Ukraine knows the name Igor Kolomoisky, the Jewish oligarch who, like Poroshenko, switched sides to support the Maidan protests. Shortly after the revolution, Kolomoisky was appointed governor of the strategically important Dnepropetrovsk region. Many observers believe that he single-handedly prevented Russian Special Forces and pro-Russian separatists from establishing strongholds in his region. When the Ukrainian military was short on funds and fuel, Kolomoisky personally paid for its fuel bill. He offered a reward for every separatist pistol and machine gun handed over to the authorities, and he put a price on the head of every separatist killed. While many people denounced or ridiculed this device, it sent a clear message: Dnepropetrovsk would do whatever was necessary to stop separatism.

Kolomoisky isn’t just Jewish, he is the Ed Koch of Ukrainian politics. He wears his Jewishness on his sleeve — speaks Russian with a Jewish intonation, and refers to his Jewish involvements in just about every interview. Kolomoisky is also the Edgar Bronfman of Ukrainian Jewish life. He heads several local, national and European Jewish organizations and was the primary donor for the Menorah Center in Dnepropetrovsk — which is billed as the largest Jewish community complex in the world.

When average Ukrainians think of Jews, they think of Kolomoisky and his associates. Now, in the midst of the struggle against Russia, that is a big plus.

One of his associates, Vadim Rabinovich, ran for president in the recent elections. Rabinovich is the stereotypical Jewish name in the Russian-speaking world (like “Cohen” in the United States), and a whole genre of jokes is devoted to the exploits of an anonymous, hapless Rabinovich. The thought of a Ukrainian president carrying that name is almost laughable. And this Rabinovich has no political record whatsoever. Besides being a businessman, the only leadership position he holds is president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, and that is how he was introduced in televised interviews and debates. Since voters didn’t know much about Rabinovich other than his name and his title — his platform was vague and heavy on generalities — his candidacy was a public Rorschach test on Jews. Interestingly, there were no public anti-Semitic remarks directed against his campaign. And Rabinovich did much better than expected: He came in seventh, with 2.25% of the vote — twice as much as the candidate from the ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic Svoboda party. If one discounts the votes that Rabinovich garnered from Jews and ethnic Russians, at least 300,000 ethnic Ukrainians voted for him for president — mainly on the basis of his name, and on the reputation that Jews are patriots who know how to get things done.

The real problem in Ukrainian-Jewish relations is not about the present, but about the past. A colleague of mine called the history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations “the relationship from hell.” That’s an overstatement. If there was only conflict and tension, then why are there so many Ukrainian words and melodies in Yiddish?

But it is undeniable that just about all major Ukrainian movements for national liberation (prior to the current one), whether they were directed against Polish domination or Russian domination, featured anti-Semitic rhetoric and the massacre of Jews, beginning with the uprising led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky in 1648, and down to the Ukrainian Insurrectionist Army’s collaboration with the Nazis in 1941.

On the airplane to Moscow, and from Moscow to Kiev, I read a book about a now obscure chapter in this tortured history — Elias Tscherikower’s Yiddish-language history of the Ukrainian pogroms of 1919. In the aftermath of the collapse of czarist Russia, Ukrainian nationalist forces that fought for independence against the Soviet Red Army slaughtered thousands of Jews, usually under the pretext that they were Bolsheviks. Tscherikower argues (convincingly, I believe) that the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura personally ordered the worst of those pogroms, in Proskurov, where 1,250 Jews were killed in February 1919. A few years later, a Ukrainian Jewish émigré named Sholom Schwartzbard assassinated Petliura on a Paris street-corner. (In a twist of bitter irony for Jews, the town of Proskurov was renamed Khmelnitsky in 1954.)

I read the book just to hold in check my enthusiasm for the Ukrainian enterprise.

The bloody past keeps interjecting itself into the present, and impinges on Ukrainian-Jewish relations. In the Western part of the country, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Stepan Bandera, is venerated as a national hero. He was a virulent anti-Semite who collaborated at the outset of the war with the Nazis. Inhabitants of Western Ukraine widely deny the fact that the Ukrainian Insurrectionist Army associated with his organization murdered thousands of Jews. Or worse yet, it is recast as a justifiable wartime action against Jewish Communists.

Truth be told, Ukrainians have not honestly confronted the dark side of their history. In order to mend Ukrainian-Jewish relations, Ukrainians need to have the courage and self-confidence to honestly confront the anti-Semitism of their past. And Jews need to be able to look beyond the ugliest chapters of the past and see the totality of Ukrainian-Jewish co-existence. Ten times as many Ukrainians fought against Hitler in the Red Army than collaborated with the Nazis. But who remembers that?

Jews should also acknowledge the positive changes that have taken place over the past decades and, much more dramatically, during the past six months.

The complexity of the problem, and signs of improvement, is exemplified by recent events in Lviv, the capital of Western Ukraine. Before the war, Jews made up 32% of the population of Lviv, which then belonged to Poland. Today, there are very few Jews and Poles in Lviv, and the region is typically portrayed as a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, 38% of Lviv’s voters cast their ballots for the ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic Svoboda party.

But the political rhetoric in Lviv has changed. In late March, the city observed “a day of speaking Russian” to show respect for Russian language and culture and to reach out to the Russian-speaking inhabitants of eastern Ukraine. In the recent presidential elections, the Svoboda party candidate garnered only 1.1% of the votes in the Lviv region.

On April 27, something ugly occurred: A march was held in downtown Lviv to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the establishment of the Waffen-SS Galician Brigade. The brigade, which was composed of ethnic Ukrainians and exhibited Ukrainian national symbols, fought under German commanders and swore an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. In the mythology of the Ukrainian right, its members were Ukrainian patriots who fought for their country’s independence against the Soviet Union, under the auspices of the one army that would let them do so. According to just about all reputable Western historians, members of SS Galician were responsible for numerous atrocities and for the murder of 100,000 civilians — mainly Poles, but also Jews — in the region of Volhynia in late 1943 and 1944. (Most of the Jews of Volhynia were already dead, so the brigade couldn’t kill very many of them.)

The April 27 march consisted of about 500 young people, dressed in national garb and calling out Ukrainian patriotic slogans. There were no Nazi symbols or slogans, but everyone knows what the Waffen-SS Galician Brigade fought against.

This wasn’t the first anniversary march for the brigade, but politicians and civil society reacted differently this time. Both the mayor and the governor of Lviv condemned the march. As it happens, the next day, April 28th at night, was the beginning of Yom HaShoah. Hundreds of young Ukrainians attended the memorial program organized by the local Jewish community, as a response to the march and as an expression of solidarity with the city’s Jews. The featured speaker at the Yom HaShoah program was the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, the Rev. Bohdan Prakh. Local Jews, such as the 91-year-old Yiddish writer Boris Dorfman, were astonished and moved.

Lviv’s Catholic University is, in fact, one of the foremost centers of Jewish studies in Ukraine. It just co-sponsored (with the Center for Urban History) the first Lviv Festival of Yiddish Culture. Young Ukrainians (and a few young Jews) danced to the beat of klezmer music and listened to recitations of Yiddish poetry in the original and in Ukrainian translation.

A Ukrainian Catholic university sponsors a Yiddish festival. If things like that can happen, then there is room for optimism about Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

David E. Fishman is a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and director of its program in the former Soviet Union, Project Judaica.




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